A view from the top

  • Two days after beating La Salle, Judge defeated Northeast to win the District XII wrestling title. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOY KOTS / FATHER JUDGE YEARBOOK

  • Senior Joe Galasso, who was the first Philadelphia wrestler to win an individual state title in 2013, celebrates with his team after the Crusaders were crowned league champions. Galasso will wrestle at Cornell in college. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOY KOTS / FATHER JUDGE YEARBOOK

  • Number one: For the first time in program history, Father Judge wrestling knocked off La Salle to earn the title of Catholic League champions. The Crusaders asserted their dominance by winning the District XII title two days later over Northeast. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOY KOTS / FATHER JUDGE YEARBOOK

On the sur­face, the re­quest it­self was kind of ludicrous, but Id­ris White didn’t mind hu­mor­ing an in­quis­it­ive party.

Put on your sales­man’s hat, and tell me why Fath­er Judge is the best place to go for high school wrest­ling in Phil­adelphia.

White, who com­petes in the 170-pound weight class and is one of the school’s many stud wrest­lers, kept it simple.

“We’re cham­pi­ons now … what more can you ask for?” White said mat­ter-of-factly. “We’ve grown over the years and we’ve seen our suc­cess level rise. Who wouldn’t want to wrestle for a cham­pi­on­ship team? It doesn’t get much bet­ter than that.”

No, it sure doesn’t. In the roughly 10 years of the pro­gram’s ex­ist­ence, it’s start­ling how far the Cru­saders have come. The rise to the top began in earn­est in 2010 with the hir­ing of Jim Sav­age, who came to Judge after hold­ing the head coach­ing po­s­i­tion at North Cath­ol­ic, which closed that year. Sav­age was known for hav­ing a keen eye for wrest­ling tal­ent (even coach­ing White’s older broth­er), but could he bring glory to a dormant, un­pop­u­lar pro­gram?

“When my staff and I came to Judge, we laid out a plan,” Sav­age said dur­ing a re­cent Fri­day even­ing phone con­ver­sa­tion. “That plan was go­ing to take us four years to get where we want to be. This is our fourth year here. Our guys, they have no fear about wrest­ling any­more. They be­lieve in the train­ing. Be­fore, the kids in the pro­gram didn’t really care about wrest­ling. 

“At North, wrest­ling was the end-all, be-all. When we closed, we brought sev­en kids from North with us, and they really came in and showed the Judge guys what wrest­ling was all about. There was a change in the cul­ture, a change in the idea what this was sup­posed to be about. That was year one; now, every year more kids buy in­to it and im­prove. It’s work­ing. They want to be a part of this.”

At this stage, it’s hard to blame them. For so long, the per­cep­tion was that the city of Phil­adelphia just doesn’t pro­duce top-of-the-line high school wrest­lers. Foot­ball and bas­ket­ball, sure, but wrest­ling? That was re­served for smal­ler cit­ies and towns across Pennsylvania that double as breed­ing grounds for the sport. 

However, last year — Sav­age’s third — changed everything. Last March, then-ju­ni­or Joe Galasso be­came the first ever Phil­adelphia res­id­ent to win a PI­AA state wrest­ling cham­pi­on­ship at the an­nu­al in­di­vidu­al com­pet­i­tion in Her­shey. Once Galasso, who has com­mit­ted to con­tin­ue his ca­reer at wrest­ling fact­ory Cor­nell Uni­versity, be­came the first dom­ino to fall, the rest soon fol­lowed suit.

“What Joe did was prove to every­one that you can be from the in­ner city and still do great things for a wrest­ling pro­gram,” Sav­age said. “I tell people all the time, he’s dif­fer­ent. He just has ‘it.’ He wants to be great in everything he does, and he came to our pro­gram and showed people that it can be done here. He put our pro­gram on the map, and every Phil­adelphia wrest­ler should want to be Joe Galasso.”

Galasso,  who, like Sav­age is a Port Rich­mond res­id­ent, came to Judge as a sopho­more after spend­ing his fresh­man year at Mal­vern Prep. He was happy to play the role of trend-set­ter. The way he saw it, oth­er guys just needed to see it could be done first. 

“I think people thought it was out­land­ish to think someone from Philly could win a state wrest­ling title,” said Galasso, wrest­ling at 145 pounds this year. “I did it, so now I think the oth­er guys see they can do it. Com­ing in­to the sea­son, every­one brought it up a notch, and we got over the hump, so to speak. There was just a dif­fer­ent aura about this year’s team from the be­gin­ning.”

La Salle had owned the Cath­ol­ic League the last five years, so neither Sav­age nor Galasso or any­one else had ever beat the Ex­plorers in their time at Judge. That all changed this year. On Jan. 8, Judge scored a 38-27 reg­u­lar sea­son vic­tory over La Salle, then upen­ded the Ex­plorers again on Jan. 29, 40-25, to cap­ture the Phil­adelphia Cath­ol­ic League title. Two days later, the Cru­saders knocked off North­east to win the Dis­trict XII title.

“It’s an awe­some feel­ing I can’t put in­to words, but I’ll try,” Galasso said. “Someone asked me to com­pare my win at states last year to win­ning a Cath­ol­ic League title. I tell them that states had a dif­fer­ent feel­ing, be­cause it was just me by my­self, kind of like, ‘Yeah! I won! But ugh, every­one else on my team lost.’ So to win a league title as a team was much more fun, be­cause I could cel­eb­rate with my team­mates. It was awe­some. There’s no oth­er way to ex­plain it.”

While wrest­ling is in­deed very much an in­di­vidu­al­ized sport, there is still a strong sense of team and ca­marader­ie, es­pe­cially while train­ing to­geth­er dur­ing Sav­age’s gruel­ing prac­tices. In­di­vidu­al state titles are one thing, but to cel­eb­rate as an en­tire team shows just how far this pro­gram has come.

“The cul­ture has changed dra­mat­ic­ally,” Galasso said. “Now, they (team­mates) don’t get scared or tim­id or hes­it­ant or ap­pre­hens­ive. They don’t care who they’re wrest­ling. They just let it fly and do what they have to do to beat people up on the mat.”

Ad­ded White, cur­rently ranked fourth in the state: “When you get to the level we’re at, it’s all men­tal. The one thing some guys lack is that men­tal edge, the one where you say, ‘I don’t care how big this guy is, I don’t care where he’s ranked or what his ac­col­ades are. I’m just go­ing to go out and pul­ver­ize him.’ Phil­adelphia city wrest­lers can hang with the best and com­pete at just as high of a level. Joe has proven that.”

Now, it’s time for the rest of the Cru­saders to fol­low in Galasso’s foot­steps. Over the week­end, all 13 wrest­lers were named All-Cath­ol­ic at the league show­case (White and Galasso were first-team­ers), mean­ing all 13 qual­i­fied for the next step, which is the dis­trict tour­na­ment. Ac­cord­ing to Sav­age, the top four fin­ish­ers in both the Cath­ol­ic and Pub­lic League will ad­vance to a re­gion­al tour­na­ment in Beth­le­hem, and a top-three fin­ish there punches a tick­et for the state tour­ney.

Last year, it was Galasso’s time. Now, it’s Fath­er Judge’s time.

“Joe, he’s just a born lead­er and has taught me so much,” said fresh­man Tre­vor Elfv­in. “Whenev­er I see he and Id­ris go­ing as hard as they do, it makes me want to do ex­actly what they do. Watch­ing them both wrestle has been amaz­ing.”

“Hav­ing Joe around is great not just for my­self, but every­one,” White said. “Guys re­spect him and do what he says. He’s on an­oth­er level, and now guys know the path they have to fol­low to get there.”

Ad­ded Sav­age: “They all have dreams to be­come state champs. Some won’t sniff it, but they still train that way.”

Asked to put his sales­man hat on as well, Galasso was also happy to ob­lige.

“I’ve seen Sav over the years have kids go from not know­ing what a (wrest­ling) stance is to pla­cing in re­gion­als and states,” he said. “He turns no ones in­to someones. We’re the real deal.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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